Red Record of Failure and of Innocent Victims

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"Red Record of Failure and of Innocent Victims"

Newspaper article

By: William L. Chenery

Date: September 19, 1920

Source: "Red Record of Failure and of Innocent Victims" as published by the New York Times.

About the Author: William L. Chenery was a reporter for the New York Times during the 1920s.


Throughout 1919 and 1920, anarchists featured in news reports as the United States found itself gripped by fears of radical terrorism. Anarchist terrorists detonated a bomb that exploded in the heart of New York's financial district at Broad and Wall Streets on September 16, 1920. The bomb killed 28 people and injured more than 200. The victims were mostly low-paid secretaries and clerks, not the captains of industry that the bombers had intended to harm.

In November 1917, Bolsheviks seized control of Russia. Many Americans, equating communism and anarchism, feared that this revolution would come to U.S. shores. Labor disputes, race riots, heavy immigration, a recession, and the difficulties of returning to a peacetime economy after World War I, all added to American fears. Four million workers, one out of every five, went on strike in 1919, including the entire police force of Boston.

The actions of anarchists contributed to these fears for the future of America. Disillusioned by political repression in the U.S., especially the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, they dedicated themselves to a war on the oppressors that was preached as a duty by the anarchist writer Luigi Galeani.

Anarchists distributed pamphlets that threatened violent attacks throughout the country. In Milwaukee, an anarchist bomb killed ten people attending church in April. The next month, 36 packages mailed from New York to prominent Americans were found to contain explosives. In June 1919, anarchist Carlo Valdinoci blew himself up on the porch of the home of U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer while attempting to place a bomb. On the same night that Valdinoci died, bombs were detonated in seven U.S. cities.

In response to the anarchist terror campaign, Palmer conducted raids in late 1919 and early 1920 that rounded up radicals for deportation. The raids, which captured some innocent people as well as the guilty, were ultimately halted because of the injustices inevitable in mass arrests.

The last major anarchist attack in the U.S. took place on September 16, 1920 when a bomb exploded on Wall Street in New York. Mario Buda, an associate of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, is considered responsible for planting this bomb. Buda was part of an anarchist cell that also included Sacco and Vanzetti, radicals who were executed for participating in a 1920 Massachusetts armed robbery that cost the lives of two working men, a paymaster and a guard. Buda may also have participated in the Massachusetts robbery.


Supposing that the ultimate evidence allays the last doubt that the explosion which spread desolation from the very heart of Wall Street Thursday noon was an accident—the bomb which took so great a toll of life among unoffending men and women was the instrument of a characteristic crime in the long story of the Propaganda of the Deed . . .

It is a curious and sad chapter in the history of the human race that records the vain deeds of these deluded men and women who by dynamite and with even more powerful explosives have attempted to blast a road to their revolution. Little has been achieved by the misguided terrorism except the retardation of the causes they professed to serve and the destruction of many innocent people. The men aimed at have usually escaped. Folk outside any controversy have been killed. The bomb thrown at a King has more often hit a workman. The mortality among terrorists themselves has been exceedingly large. If ever insanity by public action has been shown by a class, the individual members of which seemed to be rational creatures, it has been shown in the record compiled by men and women here and there who have been exponents of this mad doctrine called in their own jargon the Propaganda of the Deed . . .

Since the Haymarket riot the teaching of the terrorist philosophy in this country has been isolated and clandestine. Even the anarchists, such as Benjamin Tucker, who eschewed violence from the very outset, became fewer. Not until the beginning of the present century did the old philosophy, the Propaganda of the Deed, appear in a new form. Then it emerged chiefly as sabotage rather than as terrorism. This happened when the I.W.W. [International Workers of the World] broke away from the Socialist Party. William D. Haywood and others in 1911 began to argue that, since "the present laws of property are made by and for the capitalists, the workers should not hesitate to break them."

The conflict of principle between progress in accordance with the law and terrorism, which two generations previously had exiled the anarchists from the Socialist International, was again fought out within the ranks of American socialism. Once more the advocates of violence were driven out. Morris Hilquit was the leader in the attack on the new advocacy of lawlessness. Hilquit insisted that a resort to law-breaking and violence was "ethically and tactically suicidal."

He pointed out that all of the various forms of lawlessness and violence, terrorism, direct action, Propaganda of the Deed, had served chiefly to injure the group which used this method. Criminals concealed their depradations under the cover of the revolutionary movement. Spies and agents provocateurs led simple workmen into senseless slaughter and destruction. "It has invariably served to demoralize and to destroy the movement, ultimately engendering a spirit of disgust and reaction," said Hilquit.

Such in fact is the history of terrorism not only in the United States, but in the world. But in spite of its suicidal consequences, in spite of the fact that terror has retarded rather than advanced social progress, there seems to be a continuing line of these weak-minded criminals who madly dream that by dealing out sudden death they can accomplish their ends. These uncontrolled individuals, sometimes isolated exponents of the philosophy of terrorism, and again merely desperate and unscrupulous advocates of some idea or cause, are chargeable with most of the outrages which have brought trouble to this land . . .


By the time that the Wall Street bomb detonated, the panic of the Red Scare (an era of increased anti-communist, immigrant, anarchist, and socialist sentiment which prompted widespread repression of such groups) was in decline. Under the direction of Attorney General Palmer, the government had launched an all-out attack on radicals that had swept up many anarchists. When Palmer declared that radicals were planning to celebrate the Bolshevik Revolution on International Labor Day, May 1, 1920, government officials responded by calling out state militia, fortifying public buildings, and placing machine-gun nests at major city intersections. May 1st came and went without disturbance.

Even before the Palmer Raids, most Americans had shown a distinct lack of interest in left-wing political extremism. The membership in communist (known as "Red" for the color of the Bolshevik flag) and anarchist groups remained extremely small. The radicals who joined such organizations often spent their time debating the finer points of doctrine rather than planting bombs.

Nevertheless, the anti-radicalism of the Red Scare significantly altered legal protections on free speech and free assembly. The Alien and Sedition Acts of the World War I era (1914–1918) were invoked to arrest, detain, and punish radical activists and sympathizers. Several leading radicals were convicted in highly publicized trials and deported.



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Bose, Atinkranath. A History of Anarchism. Calcutta: World Press, 1967.

Reichert, William O. Partisans of Freedom: A Study in American Anarchism. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green Popular Press, 1976.

Sheehan, Sean. Anarchism. London: Reaktion, 2003.

Topp, Michael M. The Sacco and Vanzetti Case: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005.